A useful bag for putting things in.
January 6, 2012 11:22 AM   Subscribe

I know I'm not the first with this sort of question, but bear with me. I need some sort of messenger-bag/briefcase/laptop-case thing for school, work, travel, cycling, and general out-and-about purposes. Emphasis on durability, value, and versatility. Anybody have some good recommendations?

OK, I know these messenger-bag threads have been done plenty of times but I haven't found anything that looks quite right. (Feel free to point out an old thread though if you know of one that would suit the needs described below!) Here is my version of the old story:

I need a new all-purpose bag that can hold my 11" laptop (in its neoprene sleeve), a book or two, my lunch, a water bottle, some writing stuff, and a few other sundries without making a big deal out of it. It needs to be something that I can take anywhere -- I want it to ride on my back when I'm biking to work, hang briefcase-style at my side or from a grab handle when I'm walking around campus, and slide under an airplane seat when I'm flying home for the holidays. It needs to be durable and long-lasting as I am not gentle to my things and probably never will be despite my best efforts to retrain myself. It must be as cheap as possible without compromising basic quality. Points for plain, anonymous styling and lack of prominent branding.

I think what I need is a messenger bag of some sort, but the selection is a bit bewildering and it's not something I have a lot of experience shopping for. I currently make do with a $30 black nylon briefcase from Target which is almost perfect except that it is just a bit too small and tends to slide down off my back and dangle against my leg when I'm riding my bike. I don't want a backpack, by the way -- I'm looking for something a bit more professional-looking, something which will blend in a little better with the slacks/t-shirt/suit-jacket look that I usually wear. It doesn't matter if it has a dedicated laptop compartment as my laptop has its own sleeve -- in fact, plain compartments would be better than laptop-specific ones. I think that two large main compartments plus some pockets for smaller things would be about perfect. A grab handle on the top is pretty much a must, as is a shoulder-strap arrangement that can hold the bag either down at my side or securely against my back.

The most difficult requirement is probably my budget, though; I'm a struggling student, and $100 is a lot of money to me. I'm not tied to a specific price point and I certainly don't want anything that is likely to fall apart after just a year or so, but if there isn't anything I can afford which satisfies my needs then I'll probably just keep getting by with what I already have. I'm not against turning to non-traditional sources like military surplus stores and such, if you think I could find something suitable there.

That's about everything I can think of. I'll be around to clarify if anyone has more questions about what I'm looking for. Thanks in advance for what I'm sure will be excellent advice.
posted by Scientist to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (24 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I know it's expensive, but I've had two Timbuk2 bags in the past ten years (the first was stolen after five), and neither showed/is showing any sign of wear. It's an investment. It also might be a bit more casual than what you're looking for (though there are faux leather upgrades), and compartment dividers and a carry handle are upgrades as well. But that's my $0.02.
posted by supercres at 11:33 AM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I had the perfect suggestion until I got to your budget. I guess I'm not sure whether you're willing for stretch for something that is a real keeper, but just in case, I have had my BaileyWorks Bag for seven years (the 253) and it is the best bag I've ever owned. Durable, nice looking, roomy, sensibly organized, made in the USA by a family owned company. I use it for work every day, carrying the same things as you, for cycling, and for travel as a carry-on. It's very comfortable. $100 is a lot for me, too, but this is one of those rare investments I've never regretted paying a higher price for.

If the price just makes your hair stand on end, check eBay for used versions of them. I've seen them pop up now and then.
posted by Miko at 11:36 AM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ebags has the large Timbuk2 messenger bag in black on sale for $72.

There's a chest strap so it won't be all slidey when you're on your bike. It does not, however, have a grab handle. They are pretty bomb-proof. They fit under airplane seats.
posted by rtha at 11:37 AM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Timbuk2 is great. Had one for years. Not cheap, but not overly expensive. You get what you pay for, which is quality.
posted by uncannyslacks at 11:40 AM on January 6, 2012

I have this messenger bag from LL Bean that I love. It's about $65 but LL Bean has free shipping and it will last you forever. I've had it for about 4 or 5 years now and have dragged it on many, many travels. It looks just as good on you if you're walking around the streets of Yangon in Myanmar as it does in Business Class on American Airlines.

I can fit all my travel documents, iPad, a book, water bottle, paperwork, cords, etc. inside it very easily. I like that the straps adjust easily, as you apparently prefer to, so I can have it long enough to strap across my body or shorter to carry more like a briefcase.

My only complaint is that I wish the bottom is a bit more rigid, as it tends to collapse in on itself if it's not that full, but it's a personal preference rather than a design flaw.
posted by HeyAllie at 11:41 AM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I bike to work daily, and keep my messenger bag with me most days. My Chrome Metropolis is the perfect bag for me. Enough space for all of the things that you've listed, and tough as nails. Fits all of your requirements, and used on eBay will also fit the $100 requirement. I think it's tougher and more comfortable than the comparable Timbuk2.
posted by craven_morhead at 11:51 AM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I should clarify that while $100 is "a lot of money" to me, I'm not married to the idea of a sub-$100 bag. None of the bags I've seen so far are out of the question, price-wise. I'd much rather buy an expensive bag that lasts ten years and does everything I want than a cheap one that falls apart after two and which feels like a compromise in terms of functionality.
posted by Scientist at 11:58 AM on January 6, 2012

My wife got me this Chrome bag for christmas a couple of years ago, and I fucking love it. Carried laptops, lunches, books, and assorted cartooning stuff all over the place, on bikes, busses, and planes. Lists for $130 on the Chrome site, but you could probably find it cheaper if you looked. And after 3 years of use, mine barely shows any wear.
posted by COBRA! at 12:02 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

a bit out of your price range, but crumpler bags are very durable and well made. I've had one for years and it still looks brand new, despite my constant abuse. I have the "7 million dollar home" camera bag and I think my mom has "the dreadful embarassment" laptop bag--which has survived daily use and constant attacks by a very hyperactive dog.

You could try checking ebay and other stores to try and snag a deal on one, too.
posted by inertia at 12:05 PM on January 6, 2012

Take a look at Waterfield Designs. Their bags are mostly above $100 but very good quality / utility and there a lot of designs. I have the Cargo bag and it's lasted four years and still feels almost as good as new.
posted by galaksit at 12:05 PM on January 6, 2012

My Manhattan Portage bag is very lightweight and possibly indestructible. I've overstuffed it with everything from vinyl records to books to travel accessories and it looks the same as the day I bought it 5 years ago.
posted by swift at 12:08 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nthing the Timbuk2 bag. I've had one for four years now (it survived two years of grad school carrying a ton of books, lesson plans, computer... I use it now on my daily commute and it doesn't have to carry as much as in those days, but it still gets used a lot) and the only wear it shows is that it's slightly dirty and some small tears in the fabric on the back that don't affect the aesthetics much (since this is the part that's against your body when you're carrying it) or the functionality at all. It's a good investment.
posted by Kosh at 12:15 PM on January 6, 2012

I like Chrome bags. Crumpler and Manhattan Portage are also really good brands. I have found that people who like Timbuk2 don't like Chrome and vice versa. If you are a bike-y person you can camp out on your local bike nerd forums and see if someone is getting rid of something or upgrading something. Otherwise Craigslist, otherwise-otherwise, Ebay. Enthusiastic seconding that paying slightly more than a C-note now will give you an eternal bag later. Save for it, it's totally worth it.

I have had not so great luck with finding good military surplus bags that are as useful and durable as proper messenger bags.
posted by beefetish at 12:16 PM on January 6, 2012

I highly recommend the Buzz by Tom Bihn. I have one and love it. Here's why:

Laptop up to 15 inch will fit in padded area.

Sling style so you can use one hand when putting it on and taking it off. Great for commuting.

Its profile is fairly slim. Definitely fits under seat on planes. I've done it hundreds of times.

It's durable and will last a looong time.

All that said, it's $120. But the cost is worth it and will probably save you money over the long run because it will last. If you don't like the Buzz Bihn has many other bags.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 12:32 PM on January 6, 2012

I am a frequent cycle-commuter, and have worn a number of different messenger bags in my time. I have found that Chrome bags have worked best for me, in terms of capacity, durability, and most importantly, comfort. They are a bit pricey, but definitely value for money. In particular, I like their two-strap backpack style bags (as the cross-chest type tends to make my neck cramp up).
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:52 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So far I'm liking the Timbuk2 bags best in terms of style, pricing, and features. (The Timbuk2 website is a freakin' nightmare to use on an Android, by the way.) Specifically it looks like the Small D-Lux Laptop Bondage (only $60!) would be about goddamn perfect if only it came with a handle. You can get a handle on a custom bag of course, but the price is more than double. Grrrrr...

So, side question: have you ever moved from a briefcase-style bag with a handle to a messenger-style bag without one? Did it suck? Did you get over it? Do you miss it? Your thoughts on the matter are of great interest to me.

And thanks for all the great advice so far! Sorry for such a boring choice after so many interesting possibilities have been mooted, but for me anyway it's starting to look like Timbuk2s are the standard for a reason.
posted by Scientist at 1:37 PM on January 6, 2012

So, side question: have you ever moved from a briefcase-style bag with a handle to a messenger-style bag without one? Did it suck? Did you get over it? Do you miss it? Your thoughts on the matter are of great interest to me.

Not at all. I'm kind of afraid I'm going to have to switch back to a briefcase/tote style just because of the way people dress at my job, and I detest the thought of not being able to walk hands-free.
posted by Miko at 2:02 PM on January 6, 2012

Response by poster: Still mulling things over as I'm not about to make a choice until I get home from work and can at least look things over on a proper computer, but what I've discovered is that I want a small, horizontal-style messenger bag with a sternum strap, a divided main compartment (a surprisingly rare option!), a little bit of depth to it, and without too much bling (such as that huge buckle that Chrome puts on their bags). And a handle, but I guess I can't have everything. Anyway, if anyone else still has something to add, that's the most refined version of my search that I've come up with so far.

Trying to find exactly what I want is almost enough to make me consider going into business for myself, just so that I can have exactly what I want. Also it's made me want to get these companies to a web designer who can build them some kind of functional mobile site, as the websites for these bags are without exception purgatories of frustration and horror when accessed from my phone.
posted by Scientist at 2:51 PM on January 6, 2012

The Commuter 2.0 from Rickshaw Bags might be close, though it does start at $140.
posted by not.so.hip at 3:22 PM on January 6, 2012

Seconding Timbuk2. I've had my messenger bag for nearly 13 years of daily wear, and it's still going strong (although the corners are worn and lycra on the has come off the padding). In fact, I plan to invest in a new one soon.
posted by pakoothefakoo at 3:58 PM on January 6, 2012

I really like my Tom Bihn bag also (I don't remember the name of the style I have). They're a bit expensive, definitely not as-cheap-as-possible, but they are correspondingly well made and designed; if your bag lifetime is determined by wear (rather than, say, getting lost or eaten by bears) they're definitely worth it.
posted by hattifattener at 4:42 PM on January 6, 2012

I confess, I am a messenger bag junkie. Research the bag and patiently wait on eBay. Seriously, your budget can get more than one bag. To give an example, $30 got me a Barney rustle crumpler while $10 got me Manhattan portage. Just be aware of shipping charges.
posted by jadepearl at 8:09 PM on January 6, 2012

I've had a Tenba Large Messenger Bag for the past 3 years. It's a camera bag but there's a removable insert that I take out for day-to-day use. The bottom of the bag is rubberized and water resistant. The zippers are YKK zippers that will always work. The bag is made of very tough and durable ripstop nylon. There's a laptop compartment for the bag that can serve as a divider when you don't have your laptop. My favorite feature is that there's a quick access zipper that I use so that I don't have to flip open the flap to get at my stuff.

It comes in plain black and has a handle, but the strap isn't a sternum strap.
posted by photovox at 8:26 PM on January 6, 2012

Response by poster: The deed is done. I ended up buying one of these bad boys (in that color scheme) for $61 including shipping via Amazon Prime. I am definitely looking forward to taking delivery.

Thanks for all the advice. I feel like I ended up with a pretty standard choice, but I feel good about it.
posted by Scientist at 8:27 PM on January 6, 2012

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